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The Muppets in the 21st Century

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This Joshua Rivera piece of criticism about the evolution of the Muppets is really quite good. Recent iterations of this (Jason Segel’s excellent film excluded) have been a case study in how to turn a beloved piece of our cultural history into the cynical franchise-building exercises of the present. Here’s an excerpt:

Another part of the problem is simply that “Are the Muppets relevant?” may be the wrong question. A better one might be “Have the Muppets evolved in a less relevant direction?” While the reported behind-the-scenes issues play no small part in The Muppets’ restless evolution and lack of a steady 21st-century groove, there’s also a significant change in how they’ve been presented to audiences. The problem is sincerity: The Muppets at their 1970s peak have a timeless charm because they’re achingly sincere. And the changing cultural context around them has made that sincerity next to impossible to maintain.

Streaming the original 1976-1981 edition of The Muppet Show on Disney Plus today means disappearing into a world that doesn’t really exist anymore. But that was also the case at the time. The Muppet Show wasn’t television, it was vaudeville. The series is an intentional throwback that goes out of its way to pay tribute to a previous generation of entertainers — like early television legend Milton Berle — while showing a new generation that the old magic still worked.

At first, a big self-aware joke at the heart of The Muppet Show was that it couldn’t book big stars even if it wanted to — the Muppet characters who were putting on a stage show within the TV show all knew that theater wasn’t conventionally popular, much like Jim Henson and co. knew that watching puppets do vaudeville was a big ask for a sophisticated adult audience. But the series was a success, spawning a feature film franchise that kicked off with 1979’s The Muppet Movie. And as they became more and more successful, the running joke that no one watched the hardscrabble puppet show got more and more ridiculous. It was a hard façade to maintain when the cast of Star Wars was appearing on the show.

That’s the trick that makes the Muppets’ sincerity work: their best stories happen when their human guests — and therefore the audience — try to join their world. The Muppets are at their least functional and entertaining in stories that are too firmly situated in our world. That’s what lies at the heart of many complaints about The Muppets, the failed 2015 mockumentary series that channeled The Office and mined inter-Muppet relationships for drama, like Kermit’s breakup with Miss Piggy. Or this viral moment on The Masked Singer, when a giant singing snail is revealed to be none other than Kermit the Frog in disguise, and the judges work extremely hard to sell how much their minds are blown.

The Masked Singer appearance was followed by an interview with People, where “Kermit“ answered questions by email about the show and joked about how snails and frogs are both served at French restaurants. If it isn’t clear, I hate this kind of Muppet shit, because it’s insincere. It’s compelling people to play along with the Muppet kayfabe, rather than inviting them into the Muppet world. It’s the inverse of the original magic, which despite the puppetry, was about people. Setups like the Masked Singer cameo are about brands instead.

While the original Muppet Show isn’t necessarily a bastion of artistic purity — most of the guest stars were there to promote something, even if it was just their own careers — the series worked pretty hard to hide it. (It also helped that the publicity game was very different before the internet.) So while the show’s guests — and by extension, the Hollywood actors who would appear in Muppets movies — could profit from a Muppets appearance, they were still serving the one thing the Muppets need to do, every time: put on a show.

That last part is important. For all the time Kermit, Fozzie, and friends have spent trying to get to Hollywood in their movies, the Muppets aren’t necessarily about Hollywood. Hollywood is an obstacle. Hollywood thinks the Muppets don’t matter, and it’s the silent villain in a lot of Muppet productions. (Muppets Most Wanted, the last Muppets movie released, joked about the cynicism of movie sequels in its opening number, as the Muppets went on to make… a movie sequel.)

The reason Segel’s film worked so well is that he actually understood what made the Muppets special and if it was nostalgia to make the film, it was a well-meaning nostalgia. Well-meaning and Hollywood don’t go along very well and now, like, say, The Simpsons, it’s all about just putting out more product for easy money. And that’s Hollywood, nothing new under the sun there. But it really does miss the point about why the whole wacky idea worked so well in the first place.

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